Most people who connect to the Internet do so through an Internet service provider, or ISP. The ISP business is intensely competitive right now, with thousands of entities offering their services, from hackers operating out of a spare bedroom to giant telephone companies.
If you're not yet on-line and are looking for an ISP, or if you're dissatisfied with your current ISP, how do you choose?
One way is to investigate various ISPs, comparing performance, reliability, services offered, customer support, future viability, and cost. Another is to take advantage of the testing and experiences of others.
Two computer magazines have recently ranked large ISPs. PC magazine analyzed 13 different services, measuring reliability, comparing features, and conducting a user satisfaction survey. EarthLink Network (800-395-8425) and Prodigy Internet (800-776-3449) received "Editor's Choice" designations. "Honorable Mentions" went to IBM Internet Connection (800-455-5056) and Sprint Internet Passport (800-7479-428).
Earlier, PC World magazine performed a similar analysis with 12 large ISPs, awarding "Best Buys" to MindSpring (800-7194332) and IBM Internet Connection. MCI Internet (800-550-0927) and SpryNet (800-777-9638) also did well.
CNET, an Internet-based computer news service, has been regularly ranking ISPs based on readers' views. It's currently changing its rating methodology and doesn't provide ratings data. But - if you already have Internet access - you can still find a list of ISPs at www.cnet.com/Content/Reviews/Compare/ISP, and you'll be able to find ratings there when they become available again.
You can also get recommendations from trusted coworkers and friends or savvy sales people and support personnel at your local computer store. If you're already on-line, you can read others' experiences and recommendations - and their sometimes biting criticisms - in the on-line discussions of local Usenet newsgroups.
One decision you'll have to make is whether to go with a large ISP, such as those evaluated by the computer magazines, or a smaller regional or local provider. A number of industry analysts predict that there will be a shakeout in the ISP industry, with the larger players buying up the little guys or forcing them out of business.
But odds are that many of the stronger local ISPs will survive, providing niche …